Faculty Spotlight: Sukalpa Basu

Just like traditional on-campus classes, Penn LPS Online courses emphasize communication and connection with instructors as well as peers. Our courses are designed and delivered by Penn faculty who bring years of teaching experience as well as professional expertise to the classroom. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to introduce you to some of the outstanding instructors who make our courses so immersive and effective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Meet Dr. Sukalpa Basu

Sukalpa Basu is a lecturer and advisor for the Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Programs. She earned her PhD in physics from Temple University, where she conducted research in phase transitions and spin waves in cerium. Before joining the University of Pennsylvania, Sukalpa taught at Valley Forge Military College, where she also served as an academic advisor and Director of Assessment.

In 2022, Basu was awarded Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies Award for Distinguished Teaching in Undergraduate and Post-Baccalaureate Programs. She teaches two courses in the Physical and Life Sciences degree concentration: PHYL 2300: Physics with Python Applications - Mechanics and PHYL 2400: Physics with Python Applications - Electromagnetism.

Congratulations on your teaching award! What drew you to a career in physics education?

Teaching physics is a passion—I never considered it a profession. It’s kind of hereditary: My mother was a physics teacher, and I grew up tutoring my brother and then tutored high school kids when I was an undergrad, and so on until it snowballed.

But just as much as research is important to move the scientific community forward, I think teaching is important to ensure that we have future generations interested and ready to contribute to the ever-evolving discipline of physics, or science in general. I feel that I fit best in conveying my passion for this subject to future generations and preparing them so that they can apply science not only as majors in the discipline, but in whatever field they are in.

You teach and advise for the Pre-Health Programs, including the Core Studies program, which is designed to help career changers who don’t necessarily have a science background prepare for medical school. How do you make physics accessible for students who are relatively new to science?

Most of the Pre-Health students I see in my classes are mature individuals—and the Core Studies students usually have a good reason for completely shifting gears. They have made their decision after quite some thought, and as a result, they take their coursework very seriously. They know they have to manage their time, they know how to get things done, and they know how to seek help. That makes teaching them very enjoyable on my end.

To be able to convey what I’m trying to teach to non-majors has always been a challenge as well as a source of inspiration for me. I try to put myself in their shoes: why would someone who is not going down a physics track or engineering track need to learn this material? I often try to connect physics to something that the students value or that they can envision using in their intended career path. For example, in one physics course, there is a tough unit on torques and rotation. And one of the pre-dental students came back to me and said, Oh, now I see how I can use torques—we have to use torques in some of the dental procedures we do! Same for electromagnetism: we draw a parallel between electrical circuits and the brain, how the brain functions. It helps me engage the students when we can see the applications of physics concepts in medicine. And having a structured active learning component to the course definitely helps.

What is active learning, in this context?

My courses typically have some pre-lecture work, like reading or watching videos, which students need to do just to wrap their heads around the concepts that will be presented. Once they have seen the material, it’s easier to get the ball rolling. There’s also a warm-up problem which is assigned prior to class, so they can attempt it on their own and see how well they did. They are not expected to master or even be proficient in the material at that point in time, but it gives them confidence that they understand at least a little bit of what’s going on. Once we are done with that, the active learning component provides them an opportunity to build their problem-solving skills through collaboration with peers in a small group setting. During these sessions, they are not going in with a predefined process or method; I require students to write out their unknowns, tell me what laws or principles they’re using, and come up with the formula relevant to the context of the problem. It’s a shock in the beginning for students who may be used to “plug and chug,” find the formula from the formula sheet and then you’re done. But in the process of showing their work, they soon learn to prioritize physics concepts.

Believe it or not, there have been several circumstances where I end up learning a lot through one of these active learning sessions, because a student may have presented a solution in a way that I haven’t thought of before. At the end of class every day, it is so humbling to look around the room and see such beautiful work up on the whiteboard.

Tell us about the courses you are teaching for Penn LPS Online.  

PHYL 2300: Physics with Python Applications - Mechanics starts off with kinematics, which is the description of motion: If I see a car move, how do I describe the way it is moving? We learn the physical quantities required to describe motion so that someone else can look at my description—in words or pictures or motion diagrams or even graphs—and predict the rest of it. It is sometimes surprising how with just a motion diagram, you can predict more about the motion of an object: its velocity, its acceleration, and so on. Then we move on to Newton’s laws and dynamics, which answer the question of why the object is moving in the way it is moving. And once we learn all about the forces, we apply them!

In PHYL 2400: Physics with Python Applications - Electromagnetism, we start off with static electricity. Recall the zaps you get on a dry day when you touch a metal door knob. Then we move onto current electricity. Here we learn to analyze an electric circuit, calculate the amount of current that's flowing in each branch, the voltage differences, and so on. These concepts are applicable in the electric bills we pay and the appliances we use. Next is magnetism. Who does not love playing with magnets? Finally, we put electricity and magnetism together: lo and behold, just by moving a magnet in and out of a coil, we can generate electricity. At that point, we are ready to talk about the electromagnetic spectrum, all the way from gamma rays to radio waves, with good old visible light in between.

What role will the Python applications play in these courses?

So, these are not programming courses. Only basic concepts of programming are introduced. Python will be used as a tool to model the physical systems we learn. For example, in one module we will be talking about projectiles, and we will learn how to work out the kinematics of projectiles using physics concepts. And then later in the week, we are going to write programs that will help us calibrate a projectile: given a launch angle and a launch velocity, what do you expect the range to be, what will the trajectory look like? So students should be able to draw their calibration curves and then utilize that to predict the launch angle they need to hit a target. As for the applications, it could be sports—a basketball is a projectile—or it could be artillery, or helping your cousin build a trebuchet for a science project.

I’m really excited, just thinking of the endless possibilities. I always like a new project or a new challenge. These online courses are allowing me to be creative about the way I deliver content.

Are there ways you seek creativity in science outside of the classroom?

In the summer it’s gardening, and in the winter it's knitting. Knitting is a periodic function: if you think in terms of waves, oscillations, and things like that, knitting is a pattern that repeats itself.

Is there anything else you’d like students to know about your Penn LPS Online courses?

Going back to the fact that I like to make physics more relatable, I’m trying to make these classes more interdisciplinary in flavor. I’m trying to bring in guest lecturers to talk about how physics is relevant to their field of interest—medicine and engineering of course.  Other than that, it would be pretty neat to see how physics is applied in forensics, accident reconstruction, all the way to MRI, proton therapy, and photon therapy. And students can come up with context they can relate to in everyday life. Imagine life without electricity or cars, right? Playing basketball or video games is so much physics in action.

We are definitely in for a ride. And I really mean that, because one of the projects I have in mind is a roller coaster simulator: we will design the roller coaster then we will definitely take it for a ride!

Curious whether the Physical and Life Sciences degree concentration is right for you? Explore your options in the Penn LPS Online feature “5 steps to choosing a concentration that aligns with your goals.” If you’re just testing the waters in online science education, read more about an introductory course in “Explore everyday biology and think like a scientist in Foundations of Life Science.”

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